Elizabeth was married to James Brownrigg, a plumber who moved with his wife in to Flower-de-Luce Court off Fleet Street. It was the year 1765 and plumbers seemed to have been doing as well back then as they are today. James was coining it sufficiently to afford a little house in Islington as a retreat from the City of London.
Elizabeth gave birth to a staggering 16 children and having been a midwife, she was appointed by the overseers of the poor of St Dunstan’s parish to take care of the poor women in the workhouse. On the surface, Elizabeth Brownrigg looked like a fairly prosperous Mum with a hard working husband and a sense of civic today. What wasn’t to like? Plenty as it turned out.
She started to take pregnant women into her house to lie-in as private patients. To look after them, Elizabeth needed servants so she moved in some of the poor girls of the parish as cheap home helps – or slave labour if you prefer.
These apprentices were treated appallingly from day one. A girl called Mary Jones, an orphan from the Foundling Hospital, was laid across two chairs in the kitchen and beaten ferociously until Elizabeth had to stop because she was tired. Mary escaped and got back to the Foundling Hospital where she was examined by a surgeon who was shocked by the extent of her wounds. The hospital’s solicitor wrote to Elizabeth asking her to explain what on earth was going on – but she ignored the letter and the matter was dropped.
Another girl in the house, Mary Mitchell, was also being beaten and managed to escape into the street but was caught by Elizabeth’s son and returned to the house – where things got a great deal worse. Incredibly, the overseers of the poor for the parish of Whitefriars sent another girl, Mary Clifford, to be an apprentice to the evil Elizabeth.
This individual was tied up naked and set about with a hearth broom, horsewhip and a cane. She was forced to sleep on a mat in a coal-hole. Her diet was bread and water. One night, aching with hunger, Mary Clifford open a cupboard looking for food. Elizabeth discovered this and forced her to work naked the next day with a chain around her neck.
Now you might be asking – what did Elizabeth’s husband and aforementioned son make of all this? Well, the answer is they were willing accomplices. One of Elizabeth’s favourite punishments was to bind the girls hands and haul them up with a rope slung round a water pipe. When that gave way, Elizabeth’s husband hammered a hook into a ceiling beam.
Mary Clifford eventually confided to a French lady lodging in the house that she was being abused terribly. Inevitably, Elizabeth found out and flew at Mary with a fury that included cutting at her tongue with scissors. The parish authorities were persuaded that there was a problem at the Brownrigg house and took the husband into custody. Elizabeth and her son John fled to Wandsworth in disguise renting a room.
Poor Mary Clifford died a few days later. Elizabeth and John’s landlord recognised his lodgers as murderers and turned them in. All three were put on trial where Elizabeth was found guilty of murder but her husband and son got away with just six months in prison. After being hanged, Elizabeth’s body was put in a hackney carriage and taken to Surgeon’s Hall where it was dissected and her skeleton hung up to be viewed by medical students.